Little do fans know, former linebacker John Abraham, who ranks 12th all-time in sacks with 133.5, was previously a standout in track and field.
In competition with his girlfriend who had more awards in the high school yearbook, he decided to go out for football in his senior year.
“I was just messin’ around because my girlfriend had more accolades than I had in the yearbook,” Abraham told Prime Time Sports Talk. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna try football this year’ Cause when I was in eighth grade, I had a hairline fracture in my ankle and as I got older I was able to control that, so I figured I would do something different and try football and I always knew I was good at football so it ended being a big impact.”
After just one year on the high school gridiron, Abraham was recruited to play college ball right in his home state at the University of South Carolina. Coming from a tight-knit household with he being the only male living in the house, Abraham knew right away it was a perfect fit.
“[Being close to home] had a lot to do with my decision to go there,” Abraham said. “Simply because me coming from a household that needed a lot of help and I was like the only in guy in the house at the time it was me, my sister, my aunt, and my cousin that lived in the house so I was the only guy in the house so I felt it was my purpose to help so I wanted to stay close and provide a hand for my mom.”
From one high school season, Abraham played his way to a first-round draft stock. In 2000, The New York Jets had the 12th and 13th overall picks and selected Shaun Ellis and Abraham back to back. This came as a shock to the South Carolina alum who did not think they sniffing in his direction.
“I was around my mom, a lot of friends, family and my agents, but it was also a surprise because Shaun Ellis was with me also [because we had the same agent] and I went right after him which was a shocking experience,” Abraham said. “New York literally called me the day before the Draft and I didn’t see them at all at my workouts, and they asked for my info.”
Though Abraham made an immediate impact in New York earning All-Pro berths in his second and third seasons, East Rutherford never felt right.
“I just didn’t feel like they had my back when I was there,” Abraham said. “I didn’t really get along with coach or the people there.”
Visiting teams to find a new home, it was not long before the Atlanta Falcons came knocking at his door. The former first-round pick jumped at the opportunity to be close to home once again.
“I was actually in Seattle when my agent called me and was like, ‘John, Atlanta wants you,'” Abraham said. “I just told him, ‘Get me in Atlanta’ and he said it wasn’t as much money as Seattle and I said, ‘I don’t give a darn about that get me to Atlanta’ because it was close to home and how much it costs going back for trips or getting people to come [to games] it was actually better.”
Abraham felt the immediate change in Georgia. In 2008, he recorded his highest season sack total with 16.5 sacks earning Second-team All-Pro honors.
On Dec. 12, 2010, against the Carolina Panthers, Abraham became only the 25th player in NFL history to record 100 sacks or more.
Coming with a move back to linebacker, Abraham helped lead a revival of football in Atlanta. After not appearing in the playoffs since 2004, the Falcons made the postseason in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Abraham spent his last two years in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals when a concussion ended his career. He was only eight sacks away from being in the top five in the record books. After 15 years in the NFL and even though he was among the best when he was in the league, he never took anything for granted—even his spot on a team.
“Football is a job literally, you fill out papers like any normal job you do and you can get fired, getting cut is getting fired,” Abraham said. “It’s the same thing as getting fired from a regular job and a lot of guys used to say, ‘There are 31 other teams’ But they don’t realize you got the draft every year and you got 300 other people coming into the league at the same time trying to get your job so it’s kinda hard and I think I did a good job keeping people off my back for 15 years.”
In life after football, Abraham talked about the players nowadays concerned more about their health and their ability to secure a paycheck.
“I watch how the guys play now with the tackling and stuff like that and it’s just people are so scared to get hurt these days,” Abraham said. “I don’t understand why, I feel that if you go hard you should be ok and if you try to hold back sometimes, you’ll end up getting hurt, it’s just a different regime now.”
Abraham understands that some of it stems from the general public becoming more knowledgeable about the concussion issue in the NFL. Back when he was coming up, Abraham said concussions were just shrugged off. But he knows all well now with losing some of his friends to suicides, it is no laughing matter.
“Getting knocked out back in the day and getting your bell rung just made you and everyone laugh,” Abraham said. “A few of my ex-teammates, they committed suicide because you can’t tell something is wrong until they pass away.”
Abraham commends the NFL for their improvement in tackling the issue. The problem more so he claims, is past and present football players admitting that something may be wrong.
“They’re doing a good job because they have suicide line you can call, they have stuff for players that they can call,” Abraham said. “They’re doing a way better job than they did before, but it’s never gonna be perfect but what I’m seeing as of now that we didn’t have back in the day is we have an outlet for it now but with men, you don’t want to show that you’re week, but unfortunately some stuff is going to happen regardless even if they didn’t play football.”
With all of the rules in football now, Abraham likes to look at it as a humorous ‘what-if’ scenario.
“There’s just a lot of rules and I’m not mad at it, I wish they had the same rules when I played I’d probably have about 200 sacks for real,” Abraham laughed. “We had like no rules, they’re a lot better at doing things for defensive players because when I played defense, I used to get my butt kicked, I used to have two people on me, I would get cut-blocked and they’re trying to get that out of the game and save player’s knees and I appreciate that.”
From buying their own stuff to having jobs outside of football in the past, Abraham commends the league for the higher pay and taking care of the players.
“I can’t really knock anything about it,” Abraham said. “It’s a progression regardless of what kind of business it is supposed to progress but hopefully football won’t just end up being tag.”
Abraham’s best memories playing? Hanging out with his close friends off the field on whatever team he was on.
“Back in New York, me and Laveranues Coles were like best friends, it was me, Shaun [Ellis], and Laveranues in New York I used to also love hanging out with Curtis Martin also,” Abraham said. “In Atlanta, I had a few though it was Lawyer Milloy, Jonathan Babineaux, Ray Edwards, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio [Jones], I like knowing everybody and I tried to make sure I knew everybody.”
Today, Abraham posts constantly on social media for fans to keep up with him. At first, he was skeptical about it but he has taken to it.
“I never really was a social media guy like that but the thing is the reason I do it now is because I’m blessed to still be alive,” Abraham said. “My last concussion I could’ve died, so I wasn’t really active because I had to get my priorities right which were God, family, and football.”
Abraham to this day constantly gets fan mail and stuff to sign and he tries to get to as many as he can in a limited amount of time because he knows his signature could possibly change someone’s life.
“I tried to sign anything as much as I can because I was talking to my friend the other day that you could make someone go from thinking about suicide to changing their life, it’s just that small thing,” Abraham said. “I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else but if someone asks me to sign it I will because I just enjoy making people laugh because sports save a lot of people’s lives, I have had hundreds of people come and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you on Sunday, I don’t know what I would’ve done with my life’ That’s what really helps me out that I knew I made a difference not by winning games and shows that I did something more special than just sacks and selling tickets.”